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“Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart: A Novel is the book that can be called a real masterpiece of the African Literature with the appearance of which Chinua Achebe was concerned started writing his novels and glorifying the African culture and Africans. This book can be viewed as the response of the author to the two different and rather opposing masterpieces of European literature – Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats. The story by Conrad is viewed by Chinua Achebe as the negative and racist work diminishing the role of African culture and offending the dignity of Africans: “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality.” (Achebe, 1988, 252) In these words, the whole sadness and anger of Achebe are expressed, as the author of these lines has always been the patriot of his race and ethnicity. Conrad’s work was the embodiment of stereotyped, wrong and racist view of Africans that the whole Western civilization adopted, and Achebe wanted to fight that attitude.

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Western misconceptions about Africa

Consequently, Achebe has always claimed that the Western views upon Africa were rather confused and mistaken and West was much more dangerous and inhuman then violent Africa it looked down at. In this point, his novel coincides with the poem by William Butler Yeats titled The Second Coming. The title of Achebe’s book refers to the poem as well as the idea that is expressed by different means and from different sides of the conflict but with the same meaning. Yeats showed the decline of his civilization while Achebe’s aim was to praise his own compared to the Westerners. These lines from the poem reflect the essence of Things Fall Apart: A Novel:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
(Yeats, 2007, p. 1)

It is not about the whole world but about the culture that positioned itself as the world recognizing no one other. Its decline can be compared to the end of the world and Judgment Day for its representatives. At the same time the nation Achebe portrays is on the rise and Western negative impact only damages it.

So, Chinua Achebe as one of the fathers of the African literature who “is known across continents for his landmark first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), a tale told “from the inside” about the destructive impact of European Christianity on precolonial Igbo culture amid the scramble for Africa in the 1890s.” (Jaggi, 2000) He is recognized all over the world, although several decades ago such a phenomenon as African literature was unfamiliar to many people whom he mentions in his essay: “African literature. Now that was funny, he said, because he knew a fellow who taught the same thing, or perhaps it was African history, in a certain Community College not far from here. It always surprised him, he went on to say, because he never had thought of Africa as having that kind of stuff, you know.” (Achebe, 1988, p. 251).

The main idea of the book by Achebe is the world in which one of the Nigerian tribes lived and developed on the verge of the 19th and 20 centuries. The language is mainly straight in the meaning that Achebe aims at demonstrating the customs of the African tribe he writes about. From the narration carried out by the Omniscient narrator, i. e. from the third person, it becomes clear that people of Igbo tribe live in harmony. Wide use of metaphors, epithets and other literary devices serves for the purposes of creation of the same impression in readers’ minds – they see how picturesque the setting is and how good the life in Igbo tribe is: “the drums beat and the flutes sang” (Achebe, 1994, 3). People of Igbo tribe celebrated feasts together and were eager to fight with each other when “every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms” (Achebe, 1994, 3) This was, however, destroyed by the unwelcome interference of the European Christian missions, who make the life in the village of Umuofia bitter and full of violence: “A proud heart can survive general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.” (Achebe, 1994, Ch. 3) Thus, the image of the Westerner becomes the manifestation of another central point of the book which is violence, unexpected violence but nevertheless rather open and brutal: “We have heard stories about white men who made the powerful guns and the strong drinks and took slaves away across the seas, but no one thought the stories were true.” (Achebe, 1994, Ch. 15).

Achebe in African society

Achebe was a son of Christians but the forceful conversion to this religion seemed one of the cruelest expressions of violence to him: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (Achebe, 1994, Ch. 20) In these lines the title of the book and the whole sense of it are reflected – these people lived as they knew and as they could; they had their own customs, traditions and ways of living, and all those things kept them together. People tried to be sincere and had no wish to lie or invent some excuses, but violence also could be found in the language used.

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The wide use of such words as power, strength, fists, fight, beat, kill (Achebe, 1994) and many others demonstrates the nature of the society depicted by Chinua Achebe. Umuofia is thus depicted as the place where power was of crucial importance and people tried to get that power to be respected. But when the balance of those things was broken by the Westerners, they fell apart, and the whole people followed them in their falling. Okonkwo, Nwoye, Ikemefuna, Ekwefi and many other characters create the setting of the clan of Umuofia where all the events take place. They all live their lives and suffer from their violence until Europeans come to impose the new violence on them – religious and political violence. Okonkwo can not stand such a pressure and commits suicide although he was considered to be the leader of the tribe: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements.” (Achebe, 1994, 3)

There is an opinion that Achebe praises violence in his book, for example while depicting the customs of the Igbo tribe concerning violence in family relations, relations between men and women and between the strong and the weak. Thus, violence towards wives and children is actually a norm of the Umuofia inhabitants but it does not destroy the society and all kits members are aware of this norm: “No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man.” (Achebe, 1994, Ch. 7) The major essence of these arguments lies in another aspect – the author pictures this Nigerian tribe society without giving any evaluations or assessments as for what is right and what is wrong in it. Achebe does not praise violence as it is, but praises the customs of the Igbo tribe that had the right for its own culture and norms of behavior, in particular towards women and children: “Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children.” (Achebe, 1994, p. 9).

However, positive attitude of the author towards his native land and the people of Igbo can also be observed in the book Things Fall Apart in the form of depiction of various aspects of day-to-day life in the village of Umuofia: “Okonkwo’s prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his three wives had her own hut, which together formed a half-moon behind the obi.” (Achebe, 1994, 10) These lines are reflections of the peaceful and wealthy existence of the tribe, even with a certain degree of violence that existed in it, until the moment when Europeans came to break everything and violently change the customs of the tribe as they wanted. Thus, violence is expressed not only directly in the book by Achebe, but also indirectly through the depictions of life before actual violence was brought to it. It is a rather important aspect as it allows the readers to see the contrast between real violence and usual misunderstandings that exist in any society.

Condemnation of brutality and violence

There also is a point of view according to which Chinua Achebe’s book excuses violence used by one culture to establish its nobility or authority over other cultures or nations. This viewpoint states that Achebe admits the necessity of violence as society-forming factor, but it is difficult to agree with this point for anyone who has read the book by this author attentively. Violence is only depicted as the phenomenon that all people resort to but it is not praised. Even vice versa, it can be stated that Chinua Achebe’s book is the condemnation of brutality and violence that tries to awake the feeling of disgust to these phenomena in its readers by lively depicting it: “After such treatment it would think twice before coming again, unless it was one of the stubborn ones who returned, carrying the stamp of their mutilation–a missing finger or perhaps a dark line where the medicine man’s razor had cut them.”(Achebe, 1994, Ch. 9)

Achebe throughout the whole book tries to combine the peaceful scenes that are more typical of literary works with the violent and rude situations that real life, especially in such a harsh society as African, brings. Thus, the lessons that people draw from violence they suffer and the results that other obtain from violence are depicted in the book under consideration as integral parts of life but not as the basis for building a noble and highly developed society. Mainly, this is achieved by the author through depictions of violence, and the words expressing violence and brutality create such an impression in readers’ minds: “…dragged on the ground through the village until he died…” (Achebe, 1994, 23), “…I shall break your jaw.” (Achebe, 1994, 23), “Amadiora will break your head for you!” (Achebe, 1994, 24).

So, African culture, and its violent side in particular, is considered to be the harmonic and naturally created society that became destroyed by another one that wanted to substitute African violence with their own. In no case is it possible to say that Achebe admires violence and sees it as an integral part of the society that aims being noble and highly developed. On the contrary, the author suffers from the necessity of violence, and depicts this suffering in the emotions of his characters who feel pain and disgust to violence but their whole lives are already surrounded by it. For example, depicting Okonkwo, the main character of the novel, Achebe uses his numerous portrayals as of a strong man: “When he walked, his heals hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often.” (Acheb, 1994, 3) Okonkwo was a brave man also for whom violence became the norm of life during numerous fights and wars, so there was no fear displayed by him to implement his huge force, he was never afraid to put his violent force into practice, to be brutal or cruel: “He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men.” (Achebe, 1994, 3)

So, the African culture is seen by the author not as the phenomenon based on and developing by means of violence but as a culture that demands right for free choice of customs and traditions of living. The expressions of violence that exist in African society are rather manifestations of the wild nature and purely emotional essence of this culture but not of the planned and rationally explained phenomena. For example, when wives lied to Okonkwo there was nothing rational in his deeds; pure anger and necessity to stick to the image of the powerful master of the family made him punish his wives and they were aware of what expected them. Violence was a norm in such cases and it did not endanger the existence of the whole society: “Okonkwo knew she was not speaking the truth. He walked back to his obi to wait for Ojiugo’s return. And when she returned he beat her heavily. In his anger he has forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. His two wives ran out in great alarm pleading with him that it was the sacred weak.” (Achebe, 1994, 21) The prayers of his wife could not stop this aggressive and purely emotional fit in which Okonkwo was violent as could be: “But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through. Not even for the sake of goddess.” (Achebe, 1994, p. 21).

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So, the possible excuses to violence as the necessary part of the social formation, which are rather unbelievable to find in Chinua Achebe’s work, can be observed only in the attempt of the author to compare and show contrast between the necessary violence and the violence produced for the sake of itself, as Europeans did it in Africa. The violence the members of Igbo tribe lived in, and it undoubtedly existed, was not new to them and allowed them to live in the way they were adjusted to. So this violence hurt them little if at all, while the violence brought by Westerners turned out to be the breaking force that destroyed the basics of the Umuofian society. The sequence of violence is unstoppable and African proverbs used by Chinua Achebe in his book prove this one more time: “if one finger brought oil it soiled the others.” (Achebe, 1994, 111) The wisest members of the tribe warned others not to answer to violence with brutality or even worse violence as they new that such phenomena do harm to all people irrespective of their race of religion: “Living fire begets cold, impotent ash.” (Achebe, 1994, Ch. 17)

Main reason of violence and brutality

Nevertheless, as it usually happens, the main reason for any manifestation of violence and brutality is nothing but fear. Fear of being perceived as a weak human being, fear of admitting to oneself that weaknesses took over your strong points. Okonkwo, for example, is characterized by Chinua Achebe as the strongest Igbo member ever but his actions are also led by different kinds of fear: “…his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic…It was not external but lay deep within himself.” (Achebe, 1994, pp. 9 – 10).

Moreover, fear of being like his father whom he always considered to be not man enough to achieve wealth was also an important motivation for Okonkwo to pursue his goals by all the means necessary including violence: “Unoka, the grown-up, was a failure. He was poor and his wife and children had barely enough to it.” (Achebe, 1994, 4) The fear of giving his children the same fate led Okonkwo and he had to carry out the acts of self-violence always trying to be a real man: “’When did you become a shivering old woman,’ Okonkwo asked himself, ‘you, who are known in all the nine villages for your valor in war? How can a man who has killed five men in battle fall to pieces because he has added a boy to their number? Okonkwo, you have become a woman indeed.’” (Achebe, 1994, Ch. 8). This kind of violence was also a part of African society depicted by Achebe, and it was necessary for that period of time. Also fear of Gods was an important aspect of violence that was unavoidable in the society under consideration as the customs were strict and violence was necessary for both sacrificing some victims to the gods of the tribe and for keeping people of the tribe in obedience: “Beware Okonkwo!’ she warned. ‘Beware of exchanging words with Agbala. Does a man speak when a god speaks? Beware!” (Achebe, 1994, Ch. 11).

However, Okonkwo does not base his life on them; they are pure means that help him not be disrespected. Thus, fear of being displaced from a high position in the society, fear of being deprived of wealth and material means for living made people resort to violence in the African culture depicted by Achebe. If viewed from this point, his novel can be considered as the excuse to violence, but only to violence that created the society and existed in integral connection with it. The culture in which violence and brutal force could not be excused was the Western culture that used violence not in order to shape itself, but to get control and suppress others. Chinua Achebe thus draws the line between the African culture that existed in itself and whose violence did not affect anybody, and the Western culture that considered interference into the business of other nations to be its vital necessity.

Thus, to make the respective conclusion to the present paper, it is necessary to point out first of all that the statement that the work by Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart: A Novel is an attempt of the writer to find out or invent certain excuses and reasons for violence and brutal force being the dominant and the most important powers constituting a noble and vigorous society is not accurate and fair. The present paper coped with the task of proving that the book by Chinua Achebe is a skillful depiction of the contrast between the necessary and unnecessary violence, between a self-possessed culture and the culture oriented on the oppression of others. The most difficult point of the book which can also be called the final thought of it is that the oppressing culture won the struggle with the African one, as many Africans took up Christianity against their will and in accordance with the orders of their new lords. Others lost their belief in future and in possibility of free living. And as a result, Okonkwo was left alone against the whole powerful machine of the Western civilization that managed to break the resistance of a lot of his compatriots by its violence and brutality.

Conclusion

Finally, Okonkwo understood that violence defeated him. There was no other man in the village that was eager or able to fight against the violence of the invaders and oppressors. Okonkwo had no other choice but to wonder why these people turned out to be so weak, and even seemed to support the newcomers from the West: “Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: ‘Why did he do it?’” (Achebe, 1994, Ch. 24).

Bibliography

Achebe, C. (1988) Chinua Achebe: An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, Background and Sources, Criticism. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, W. W Norton and Co: London, pp. 251-261.

Achebe, C. (1994) Things Fall Apart: A Novel. Anchor

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Butler Yeats, W. (2007) The Second Coming in Later Poems. Forgotten Books.

Conrad, J. (2002) Heart of Darkness. Hesperus Press.

Jaggi, M. (2000) ‘Storyteller of the savannah’ [Online]. The Guardian. 

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